Set in 1930s Fascist Italy, Il Conformista tells the story of Marcello Clerici’s desire for conformity. Sexually repressed Marcello is tormented by the memory of a homosexual encounter during his childhood with his family’s chauffeur Lino, whom he believes he killed after Lino attempted to seduce him. Having suppressed his homosexual leanings, believing them to threaten his façade of ‘normality’, Marcello proves his own conventionality by joining the Fascist Party and marrying a petit bourgeois woman, Giulia, whom he does not love. To show his loyalty to the regime, Marcello then volunteers his services to Benito Mussolini’s secret police: during his honeymoon in Paris, Marcello will contact his former university professor of philosophy, Luca Quadri, now an antiFascist refugee, and will spy on him. On his way to France, Marcello learns that the counter-order from Rome is to kill Quadri.
In Il Conformista, the anti-Fascist professor Quadri, who lives in exile in Paris and is murdered with the complicity of his former student Marcello Clerici, is given an address and a phone number by director and scriptwriter Bernardo Bertolucci – 17, Rue St. Jacques; MED-15-37 – that belonged to French director Jean-Luc Godard, Bertolucci’s cinematic mentor at the time the film was made. Moreover, Quadri’s first name in the film is changed from Edmondo (Quadri’s name in Alberto Moravia’s novel Il conformista, of which Bertolucci’s screenplay is an adaptation) to Luca, the Italian for Luc, as in Jean-Luc Godard. Peter Bondanella has observed that ‘Marcello’s assignment to murder Professor Quadri reflects not only the protagonist’s Oedipal conflict but those of Bertolucci as well’ (1994: 303). Meanwhile, Claretta Micheletti Tonetti has observed that by giving Godard’s address, phone number and first name to Professor Quadri, Bertolucci projected ‘in Marcello’s killing of his intellectual father (Quadri) his own desire to suppress Godard’s influence on his artistic creation’ (1995: 106), in order to establish his artistic identity. As Bertolucci admitted:
“The Conformist is a story about me and Godard. When I gave the professor Godard’s phone number and address I did it for a joke, but afterwards I said to myself, ‘Well, maybe all that has some significance. I’m Marcello and I make fascist films and I want to kill Godard, who’s a revolutionary, who makes revolutionary movies and who was my teacher.” (Goldin 1971: 66)
The influence of paternal authority and the conflict between father and son are key themes in Il Conformista, and can be understood within the Freudian theory of the totemic father, whom the son must renounce to establish his male identity and symbolically enter society. In this respect, the film beautifully lends itself to a psychoanalytical reading focused on the Oedipal struggle against the father. As Christopher Wagstaff has pointed out, Bertolucci regards the Oedipal scenario as the metaphor for human existence, at the individual, sexual, social and political levels, and develops it in his films in relation to patriarchy, selfhood and repression (1996: 206). Il conformista was in fact shaped by Bertolucci’s concomitant discovery of psychoanalysis. In an interview given to Le Cinéma Italien in 1978, after saying he had been under analysis since the making of La Strategia del Ragno in 1970, Bertolucci significantly added: ‘During the time I am shooting, the film replaces analysis’ (Gili 1998: 136).
Bertolucci’s adaptation of Moravia’s novel revolves around Marcello’s quest for father figures that he feels the need to, first, please and then, in line with a classical Oedipal trajectory, rebel against and eliminate. In Il Conformista it is possible to identify numerous father figures: the Fascist state, which Marcello tends to perceive as ‘the ultimate patriarch’ (Loshitzky 1995: 65); Marcello’s friend and Fascist theorist Italo Montanari; the Fascist minister, obviously presented as an authoritative father figure through the ‘primal scene’ Marcello witnesses in the ministry office, in which the minister embraces an uncanny double of Quadri’s wife Anna; Marcello’s insane father, whom Marcello sadistically torments by reminding him of his former crimes of torture and assassination as a Fascist picchiatore (thug); Lino the chauffeur; Alberi, Marcello’s mother’s chauffeur and lover, who replaces Marcello’s father in the life of Marcello’s mother and embodies Marcello’s incestuous desire for her; the veteran agent Manganiello, who is responsible for Marcello’s ‘training’ as a special agent of Mussolini’s secret police; and then the ultimate father/teacher, Professor Quadri, whom Marcello feels he must betray and kill to establish his own identity and conform to normative masculinity. As Bondanella has observed, ‘Marcello’s entire existence revolves around a desire to please successive surrogate fathers, and a feeling of inadequacy brought on by a chance homosexual encounter in the distant past, which motivates his search for “normality” in the present’ (1994: 303). He represses his latent homosexuality by constructing a representation of normalcy and supporting the regime, but his adult self remains obsessed by the homosexual initiation experienced in his childhood, which exists as an inerasable sin and a permanent ‘fathering principle of his male identity’ (Dalle Vacche 1992: 57).
With Il Conformista, inspired by a Freudian psychoanalytical framework, Bertolucci confronted his personal father figures: his father Attilio, an acclaimed poet, film critic and academic; famous novelist Moravia; and his cinematic mentor, Godard. Attilio Bertolucci’s strong personality made a dramatic impact on his son, and Attilio was for the director the first father to ‘kill’. In various interviews Bertolucci has significantly linked his love for writing poetry to a desire to emulate his father (Gili 1998: 129), while also admitting that his choice of cinema over poetry had to be attributed to a need to find a different ground on which to compete with his father (Rigoletto 2012: 124). And he certainly managed to establish his own artistic identity at a very young age. After serving as an assistant director on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accattone in 1961, Bertolucci won a prestigious prize in poetry and received critical acclaim for his first film, La commare secca, the following year, aged just 21. Then, in 1970, came two films which secured Bertolucci international recognition and critical acclaim: La strategia del Ragno and Il Conformista.
With Il Conformista, Bertolucci also challenged one of the most eminent Italian novelists of the twentieth century, Moravia. According to Jefferson Kline, Bertolucci’s adaptation of Moravia’s novel helps us understand how the director addressed the issue of the relationship between authority and creativity, and between written text and image, for, in the film, Bertolucci ‘explicitly imitated and implicitly contested’ the textual authority represented by Moravia. While Kline identifies Bertolucci’s refusal ‘to imitate the novel’s insistently systematic chronology and causality’ as a most significant deviation from Moravia’s novel (1987: 88), Millicent Marcus also points to the replacement of Moravia’s dramatic determinism – according to which Il conformista is to be read as a story of inescapable fate which marks the protagonist from his childhood – with psychological determinism, with an emphasis on the force of the subconscious. Although faithful to the anecdotal level of the book, Bertolucci makes the present of his narrative Marcello’s car journey from Paris to the place of the assassination. During the journey, Marcello recalls various episodes of his life leading up to his current circumstances. These memories are represented in a disorienting set of flashbacks within flashbacks that defy any linear time frame. After the murder, the film ends with a coda set on 25 July 1943, the night Mussolini was voted out of power (Marcus 1986: 287–94).